Tony’s Alternative Guide to Prague » Lesser Town (Malá strana)

Lesser Town (Malá strana)

First Settlement of the Area of Lesser Town

The area of the contemporary Lesser Town has been settled since the Neolithic period. In the 8th and 9th centuries, there were Slavic oppida (walled settlements) at the site of the Lesser Town Square, which guarded two fords located roughly where the Charles and Mánes Bridges now stand. Since the earliest settlement, the area has been an important intersection of trade routes, and its importance to commerce only grew with time. During this period, most construction was in wood. The earliest stone buildings are townhouses built by the richer inhabitants, as well as churches and convents, which appeared in the 10th century with the spread of Christianity in the region.

The Foundation of Strahov Monastery

By the 12th century, the streets were paved with stone, there were at least ten stone churches in the area, and the settlement was defended by a fortified commandry (minor fort) of the Knights of St. John (later called the Maltese Knights), with a well-built episcopal residence by the bridge and the Strahov Monastery, founded 1140, providing additional protection in times of need.

A view towards Lesser Town and Prague’s Castle

A view towards Lesser Town and Prague’s Castle

Foundation of Lesser Town by King Přemysl Ottokar II

Large-scale development occurred after 1257, when King Přemysl Ottokar II (the “Iron and Golden King,” one of the few Kings of Bohemia who were successful conquerors) officially founded a royal city here and funded a number of projects. The core of the current street grid, including Nerudova Street and the large rectangular Lesser Town Square with the Church of St. Nicholas and its associated convent in the middle, dates from this period. To increase population, the King summoned additional settlers from the German Lands (which were then a collection of mostly-independent dukedoms unified only by membership in the Holy Roman Empire) and named the city Nové Město pod hradem (literally, “New Town Under the Castle”). The name eventually changed to Menší Město (“Lesser Town”) as the Old and New Towns across the river grew; in English, this name remains, while in Czech, it eventually further evolved into Malá Strana (literally, “The Little Side”).

Hussite Wars, Massive Fire

The city was razed to the ground during the Hussite Wars of the early 15th century; what remained of the population was moved to the right bank of the Vltava. Renewal took most of the rest of the century to get underway. However, in 1541 the borough was again devastated, this time by a massive fire that destroyed 133 out of a total of 211 houses, and also caused considerable damage to Prague Castle above.

Prosperity During the Reign of Rudolf II

Further rebuilding only really started when Rudolf II took the throne of Bohemia in the late 16th century. Rudolf, then already Holy Roman Emperor, made Prague the imperial capital and invited a number of accomplished Italian architects (e.g. Ulrico Aostalli and G. M. Filippi) to improve the city. The original Gothic houses destroyed in the fire were replaced by Renaissance buildings, with gables, minarets, dormer windows, and sgraffito façades. Many gardens were also built. Because of Prague’s newfound status as the imperial capital, the population rose sharply, and it became necessary to expand the city beyond the walls.

Czech Lands as a Part of Habsburg Monarchy

When the Bohemian Revolt was defeated in the Battle of White Mountain (Czech: bitva na Bílé hoře; Bílá hora, or White Mountain, is a modest hill then outside Prague, today part of the Prague 6 borough of Břevnov) on November 11, 1620, the Kingdom of Bohemia lost its independence to the Habsburg Monarchy for the next 300 years. In the first decades, this meant religious[1] and ethnic persecution, as well as economic deterioration. On the other hand, the Habsburgs initiated extensive construction in the new Baroque style.

The Thirty Years’ War (mid-17th century) brought further economic losses, but some important construction, e.g. the Wallenstein Palace,[2] went on regardless. In 1648, the Swedish army under Prince Carl Gustaf made it as far as the Lesser Town, which they plundered (along with Prague Castle and its precious art collection left by the late Rudolf II), and attempted to storm Charles Bridge and take the Old Town, in which they failed. This action effectively ended the Thirty Years’ War, as the Battle of White Mountain, fought just a few miles away and 28 years earlier, had begun it.

Modern History

After the Czech Lands gained independence from the Habsburg Monarchy in 1918 (then as part of Czechoslovakia, the federal state of Czechs and Slovaks), the Lesser Town became the seat of the Czechoslovak Parliament, a number of government ministries, high-level government bureaus, and several foreign embassies. The entire borough was declared a protected historical area in 1950.

 


Notes:

[1] Before the defeat of the Revolt, most Czechs were Utraquists, i.e. followers of the Reformation creed of John Hus and his successors. The new Habsburg masters were staunchly Catholic and exerted considerable, ungentle effort to convert the Czech Lands to their denomination. This is often cited as one of the reasons for the low present-day religiosity of Czechs (one of the lowest globally) – pushed but unwilling to accept Catholicism and with their Protestant preference banned and persecuted, many Czechs eventually became cool towards religion as a whole.

[2] Owned by the Habsburgs’ top general, Albrecht Duke von Wallenstein, a master strategist and key leader in the Thirty Years’ War, famously assassinated in the West Bohemian city of Cheb in 1634.

 

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